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Entries in war (132)


Eric Ravilious: the scale of the land

Eric Ravilious. Chalk Downs, 1940. watercolour. 23 x 14 in. (56 x 47 cm)Eric Ravilious was a British war artist who died in 1944 when the RAF reconnaissance plane he was on disappeared off Iceland.  He did a number of things before the war: murals, woodcuts, graphic design, drawing and painting in the pale, flat sketchy way that a number of artists who had studied at the Slade used in the 1930s and 40s.  Supreme draughtsmanship, coupled in Ravilious's case with a deep love of the Sussex landscape which was at the time under threat from development, informs the painting above. 

It is small, and the brushmarks are those of a watercolour brush, used quite dry, and in places stippled.  It was a way of working that was fast and portable.  For Ravilious, nature is not wilderness, it is the impacted landscape of earth worked for millennia under many belief systems for agricultural use.  The fence line is important: it delineates territory, the road cuts the growing surface of the land the same way as the huge chalk hill carvings such as the Westbury horse, or the Cerne Abbas giant.

The chalk drawings are neolithic, perhaps druidic.  They are made by removing the thin layer of turf to reveal the limestone below.  They will disappear if not kept clear, which they have been for 3000 years.  It is this immense continuity that Ravilious sees in his landscapes, combined with the modernity of the age in which he lived.  A steam train chugs across the plain beneath the Westbury horse.

The Imperial War Museum held a centenary Ravilious (1903-1944) exhibition in 2004.  A most beautiful book was published to accompany it: Imperial War Museum. Eric Ravilious. Imagined Realities. London: Philip Wilson Publishers, 2003.  Their website gives an overview.

Eric Ravilious. The Westbury Horse, 1939. © Estate of Eric Ravilious 2004


Maya Lin: the scale of drawings

Maya Lin. Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Competition Drawing, 1981.

While browsing through the World Digital Library I came across the original panel Maya Lin had done for the Vietnam War Memorial competition when she was an architecture student at Yale.  Her black granite walls cut into the green sward, the terrific power of the thousands and thousands of individual names, the absolute simplicity of the idea – all of these things mark a division between pre- and post-Vietnam War Memorial projects.

Finding the original panel was a shock. The chalk and charcoal drawings were widely reproduced at the time, and in my mind they were large - maybe 3' wide. However, in reality these iconic works were small, sketchbook-sized.  The text describing the project is hand written and glued onto the panel – in fact all the pieces are glued onto a piece of tan matboard.  As presentation goes, so accustomed are we to computer generated layouts, Maya Lin's panel appears clumsy, unaligned, naïve, un-formed and yet, and yet, these are the drawings that outlined, in an open competition, the most powerful monument of the 20th century since Vimy Ridge.

This is a document from a time when the medium simply put the message forward.  It wasn't the message itself, and it certainly did not dominate or even obscure the message to the extent that we see today.  I don't think this is a case of my not being able to 'read' the layers of photoshopped composite images, but rather that drawings today are validated by the complexity of the processes that produce them.   

Were Maya Lin's chalk sketches and simple hand-written text the last of the clear relationship between hand and thought?  In 1982 when the memorial was dedicated most architectural offices had their new Macs.  Adobe Illustrator was launched in 1986, Photoshop in 1987.  The computer is only a tool, like a pen, or a knife, but it is a willful tool and makes complexity very easy to do.  At some point we have to ask, is complexity what we need?


Bill Woodrow

 Bill Woodrow. Car Door, Boot and Wing With Roman Helmet, 1982. Car door, boot and wing 

Thinking more about sheet material cut into pieces to make 3-d form, Bill Woodrow came to mind – specifically his work from the mid-80s, the middle years of Thatcher who was overturning a generations-long habit of thrift in favour of American-style economics: buy and throw away.

For a sculptor this provided a mine of material as consumer durables (cars, fridges, stoves) were discarded in a new spirit of excess.  Woodrow took these heavy metal surfaces and cut out the flat shapes that could make new objects – one complicated shape, left attached to the original car hood or whatever it was, carefully folded up to make a camera, or a gun, or a helmet.  The source material itself was ideologically marked; the sculptures equally so.

Looking through the work on his extensive website, one is struck by the carefully controlled violence of the pieces.  A lot refer to war.  It looks like Britannia's helmet above.  1982 had been Mrs Thatcher's Falklands War, guaranteed to boost her political profile, Britain's economy and a revival of valorious military sacrifice. Many of Woodrow's objects anticipate surveillance society with cameras and microphones peeled out of the shiny enamel of a car door: Diana's death predicted from the early days of her celebrity.

The early 1980s changed British society radically, culminating in the economic meltdown of last year, the 'special relationship' that took Britain to war several times alongside the US, and the overwhelming conspicuous consumption that was promoted as a British 'right'.  It was a revolution as radical as the breaking of the Berlin Wall a few years later, and all through it British artists were commenting, critiquing, calling attention to changes made for the sake of politics.

Bill Woodrow. Teapot, Medal and Bullet, 1982. Teapot, acrylic and enamel paintAs I write this, I'm listening to BBC Radio 4: Birds and the Battlefield. 'Security correspondent Frank Gardner, examines the links between soldiers and birds and the comfort troops can find in times of stress', from poems, letters and journal entries from WWI to the Falklands to Bosnia, Iraq and Afghanistan.  Watching birds, hearing birdsong, rescuing birds, protecting nests, washing oil-drenched birds, befriending birds.

Some British preoccupations survive.


Donald Weber

Donald Weber. WHITE NIGHTS. Russia After the Gulag

In October the Canada Council announced that Donald Weber had won the 2009 Duke and Duchess of York prize in photography.
In the late 1990s Donald Weber worked with Rem Koolhaas' OMA and with Kongats Architects, Toronto on a project that won a Governor-General's award, but clearly photography is his medium as he has a long list of awards, citations and exhibitions.  His first book, Bastard Eden, Our Chernobyl came out in 2008 and he appears to live in Moscow, Kiev and Toronto.
With a recent Guggenheim Fellowship and the Canada Council grant he is writing a book about life in Russia, described on his website as 'the curse of power and the wounds it inflicts on those who don't have it.  It's the 18th Century with jets flying overhead'.

Weber's project is enormous: enormous iniquities in an enormous continent.  THE LAST THING THEY SAW. Soviet Execution Sites is a suite of photographs that documents 'the conversion of the idea of public space and private refuge into a charnel house, from which no escape is possible'.  From 1936 the NKVD project cleansed Georgians, Poles, Ukrainians and suspect intelligentsia deported to death camps.  The photographs of the sites - bits of forest, fields, skies through winter tree branches, houses which had been no refuge, windows that witnessed these terrible acts. 
BASTARD EDEN. Our Chernobyl series shows a territory - the Exclusion Zone, not abandoned but rather occupied by a society that has chosen this area because it has returned to pre-modern life, because modern life is afraid to live in the site of a nuclear accident.  These are landscapes and people that look uncannily like northern Manitoba and Saskatchewan, without big shiny pick-ups able to drive to a Wal-Mart on the horizon.

Weber's photographs are seductive, especially WHITE NIGHTS. Russia after the Gulag: inky, velvety interiors, snow blown landscapes, wind blown trees, a litter of leaves.  What makes romance impossible are the titles and the opening texts that accompany each suite of photographs.  These are startling, setting up the photos but not actually preparing one for their impact. Beauty is not innocent here.  It is desperate, resigned beauty: mothers desperate, sons resigned.

His questions are simple: for Chernobyl, what is life in a post-nuclear world? In The Lost War. The Russian-Georgian Conflict in South Ossetia, something that for most of us was brief news headlines as the glamourous Beijing Olympics filled our television screens, Weber's eye is absolutely unflinching.  And it wasn't a small tempest; clearly it was war, as always.  It is always war.

Donald Weber. THE LOST WAR. The Russian-Georgian Conflict in South Ossetia


After-War. Kristina Norman



Kristina Norman is a visual artist and documentary filmmaker in Tallinn, Estonia.  Her 2009 video, After-War, which was part of a larger installation shown at the 2009 Venice Biennale, revolves around a Soviet WWII memorial, Monument to the Liberators of Tallinn (from Nazi Germany).

In  2007, Soviet soldiers' graves were exhumed and, with the large bronze Soviet soldier in the monument, taken from their original location in the centre of Tallinn to a cemetery on the outskirts of the city.  

With the collapse of the USSR, the former eastern block countries that had acted as a buffer between Russia and the west, including the Baltic countries – Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania, embarked on a program of de-Russification.  In the construction of a postcolonial identity including language, customs and political structures the former occupiers are either expelled or demonised.  Of course this is very difficult, much intermarriage and cultural hybridisation has occurred and identities and allegiances become hotly politicised.  For seventy years Russians had been relocated to all the Soviet republics, occupying the top levels of bureaucracy and power.  Just as Zimbabwean white farmers cry, 'But we've farmed here for generations; this is our land, our country', so do Russian Estonians.  The removal of the heroic statue of a Russian soldier to the margins of Tallinn and the periphery of history caused riots, now known as Bronze Night.

After-War documents this divide between nationalist Estonians and Russian-speaking Estonians.  It is available on her website  Scroll to the bottom, it is about 10 minutes long.  It helps if one spoke Estonian of course, which I don't.  However, it is so clearly an interrogation of the politicisation of war memorials.

Is there any generosity in the postcolonial state that would herald any kind of reconciliation of the past?  There must be sometimes, otherwise the whole world would be full of Rwandan-like massacres, or the bloody and painful battle for borders and ethnicity in the former Yugoslavia.  South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, for all its faults, still stands as a model.  Kristina Norman's video is humorous, moving, troubled.  Her art tackles the problems of reconstructing a national identity by taking the statue as a kind of tragic monolith, mute, clumsy and vulnerable to appropriation by political interests.

Kristina Norman, After-War. Golden replica of the bronze soldier Image Kristina Norman, © Courtesy Center for Contemporary Arts, Estonia


For a really nasty example of what Kristina Norman is mediating with After-War, try this video from EstonianTV.  Yes it is a riot, yes it stems from the removal of the Soviet war memorial, but the commentary, so anti-Russian, is shocking in its racism and violence.  Clearly the bronze statue was a match to the tinder of post-USSR ethnic resentment.  Surprising too how many references there are to WWII, and the Soviet liberation of Estonia from Nazi occupation.  WWII continues.



Remembrance Day 2

There is a wide swath of war graves at the Burnsland Cemetery in Calgary and every Remembrance Day, while the big ceremonies are held at the Military Museums and the cenotaph in Memorial Park, a very small contingent of reservists, a reedy piper, David Bercuson as an honorary Colonel in the Canadian Forces and a padre hold an 11 o'clock service. 

Heavy equipment grinding up rocks, or salt, or whatever it is they do in the City gravel pit next to the military cemetery is the audio backdrop, and in past years it has been interrupted by loudspeakers from the car lots on MacLeod Trail broadcasting 'Ron, line 2".  The field of headstones and graves has no flowers, just bleached grass and trees along the roadways.

Call me an aesthete, but I find this overly utilitarian and bleak. When I watch at this time of year all the services and ceremonies from Europe and the shots of the Commonwealth War Graves throughout the Netherlands and northern France with each grave lovingly tended by the children of the village, or the adjacent city, planted with flowers so tender, so beautiful, the dear old vets in tears in front of one of the standard issue grey granite headstones in a garden, my heart aches for the paucity of our attention to the gravestones we have here. 

They are all men, on the Calgary stones.  During WWII we had Currie Barracks, Sarcee, Lincoln Fields; Calgary was a base in the Commonwealth Air Training Program, and so many of these very young men – just nineteen, or twenty, from Canada, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, Poland – died in training accidents.  Does it matter if you crash on an Alberta field or in Sicily?  It was war, and you were dead.

I approached the City of Calgary a couple of years ago to propose that we set up a programme whereby grade school classes adopt a military grave and, besides researching the fellow in it, make it beautiful.  Interest was less than zero, it was actually hostile. The rules for civic cemeteries are clear: no planting allowed.  This has something to do with ease of mowing I understand.  This is beyond embarassing, this is an insult, and I feel I must apologise to all the young men who died in Calgary in both world wars for this. 


Remembrance Day




When Does A War End?

this morning, a war ended for a 26 year old.
son, a husband, a father, a brother.
but just begun, a new war for his loved ones. the un-winable war of loss.

grief is glass shards. embedded in heart muscle.
it cuts the past, the present, the future. ragged, not tidy.
it cuts the three year old son’s, his children’s, his children’s children’s past, present, future.

always the empty place setting at the Christmas table.

this I know. 







the Berlin Wall 2

the trailer for The Spy Who Came In From the Cold

This film came out in 1965.  The Berlin Wall had been up for only four years.  Clearly they weren't filming at the wall itself, it was actually shot in Dublin, however this film indelibly established the 'look' of the Cold War in the west for a generation: black and white, winter, rain, night, raincoats and absolute despair.  The wall was a space: a GDR-controlled zone that 5000 people successfully crossed between 1961 and 1989.  Officially, 171 were unsuccessful.  This view of the wall was the only one I was ever given, so the function of the segments of the wall that still stand as an instructive memorial to the partition of Germany and Berlin, gaily covered with not very good art, I find completely trivial. 

This film, and other films of the 1960s when the Cold War wasn't that cold – it was a state of high tension and fear – these are the best Cold War memorials.  John Le Carré's moral dilemmas, his cynicism, his inheritance from Orwell: these are the memorials. In a line from Somerset Maugham, Graham Greene, through Orson Welles, the dark espionage genre of Le Carré, and Len Deighton, and then all the films made from the books: this source material shocks us into the 1960s again. 




the Berlin Wall

photo: Landesbildstelle Berlin.

This year is flooded with documentaries on the fall of the Berlin Wall on November 9, 1989.  Just two days before Armistice Day, this is the first year I have noticed the closeness of the dates. The Great War armistice and the subsequent Treaty of Versailles (now a film based on Margaret MacMillan's book) set up WWII; its ending shifted into the Cold War, which we now feel ended with the fall of the Berlin Wall.  The opening of the east to the west has always been thought of as a great blow for freedom, but if this was the only result, there wouldn't be the rise of neo-Nazi parties in Europe and an increasing nostalgia for the old life in the Eastern Bloc, where everyone was employed – this keeps being mentioned in the revisitations to the territory of the old GDR especially. 

Are wars really ever ended? or is war a constant that keeps shifting into new arenas and new forms.   In On Site issue 22: WAR, we have two related articles: Açalya Allmer, a Turkish architect, discusses the dispersal of the actual Berlin Wall itself, leaving Germany on postcards, in pockets.  The other article, by Markus Miessen, takes on the new borderless EU and the confusion of identity in the newest, most Eastern members.  Walls on borders are the most literal expression of warring opposites.  Does removing the wall, thus removing the border, remove difference?  It seems not. 

Markus Miessen. ECE Berlin


Arcade Fire's Intervention cut to Sergei Eisenstien's Battle Ship Potemkin of 1925.  The original YouTube posting might have further information on this video for those who know how to read it.  I certainly don't.

When you look back at all the American pop songs of the 1960s especially, not protest songs, but just ordinary songs, it is remarkable how many refer to distant war, to waiting for someone to come home, to letters, to loss and dying.  At the time it all seemed just like boy/girl romance, partings and such.  But now I can see how embedded the Viet Nam War was in American popular culture. 

Arcade Fire's Intervention has as its repeating chorus line, Hear the soldier groan, 'We'll go at it alone'.  Of course being a soldier can be a metaphor for many things – general desperate struggle, and it might be so in this song.  However, soldiers are also real soldiers, and metaphoric or not, they must be embedded in our society now at some level to keep reappearing in contemporary song lyrics. 


The Aesthetics of Terror

Harun Farocki. War at a Distance (2003)

This is an online exhibition that keeps adding entries.  The image here is from a video by Harun Farocki, War at a Distance.  In it he looks at the photographic ways that targets are tracked from surveillance cameras to guided smart bombs: complete abstraction where war is conducted entirely through images. See the whole exhibition here.

When I started to put together the issue on war, all of a sudden all sorts of references started to come to the fore, mostly from Europe.   We are at war: Canada, the USA, Germany, Denmark – ISAF is a multilateral coalition, plus there are wars all over the planet.  Yet never here do we hear the phrase, 'there's a war on' telling us to conserve, to be careful, to be patient.  Is it because in World Wars 1 and 2, the forces were volunteers, rather than the professional forces we have today? Rather than all the men in each family, all the boys in each Grade 12 class going off to war, the Canadian Forces are some sort of distant organisation. Does this contribute to our abrogation of interest in the war we are currently fighting? 

I found the Aesthetics of Terror while looking for an image of the shooting of a Viet Cong prisoner by the chief of police in Saigon and up came Claude Moller's image:

Claude Moller. If Vietnam Were Now (2004)Moller's piece refers to the sanitisation of images presented to us in the media.  So edited are they, we hardly know what is happening.  Perhaps this is the source of our current disinterest in the war in which we are involved.


UN blue

United Nations blue:
The UN emblem started as a publicity button for the 1945 San Francisco Conference where the UN Charter was drafted.  It was designed by Donal McLaughlin (1907-2009), an architect by training and head of graphics and visual material in the OSS (US Office of Strategic Services, later the CIA).

The original insignia showed the globe, centred on the north pole, with North America on the central axis.  In 1947, this orientation was changed by 90° so that the Greenwich meridian is at the centre, and all of South America is included.  

The blue colour was meant to represent peace, the opposite of war which has traditionally been red.  Blue was also the colour of the US Army, a relationship that started with the guerrilla nature of the War of Independence (1775-83) where blue uniforms offered more protective colouring than the opposing red British Army tunics.

PMS 279 is now the official UN blue colour, however Pantone system was not developed until 1963.   At the time the flag was adopted, in 1947, the background colour was US Army gray-blue.

How curious and conflicted is the iconography of the UN, with its headquarters in New York and Geneva, its flag which at first privileged the United States and then Europe but now most significantly west Africa, its colour which came from a traditional US Army uniform colour but is now considered a universal cerulean blue, its globe wreathed in olive branches as Palestinian olive orchards are bulldozed to build a security fence ignoring dozens of UN Resolutions, the optimism of its original goals and the cynicism of the Security Council.  In theory the leaders of every country can address the United Nations Assembly, but only if the United States gives them a visa to enter the US.  It has, from the beginning, had a global reach based on the nation-state, which globalisation ignores.

However, its colour, especially when you consider its CMYK values, is extremely optimistic: the colour of sky on a sunny day, no black in it, so no shadows, no clouds, no pessimism.

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